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Do weekends and holidays make you sick?

WebMD Feature
Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks

For most of us holidays and time off are a time to recharge our batteries and chill out. For some people though, as soon as they stop work and try to relax they get ill.

Are you one of those people lying on a golden beach, blue waves lapping at your feet with a splitting headache? Or have you missed Christmas lunch as you are in bed with flu?

People who are never sick in their working week come down with headaches, colds, sickness or fevers as soon as they leave the everyday stresses and strains behind.

This is known as "leisure sickness", a phrase first coined by a psychologist in the Netherlands.

Ad Vingerhoets, said that people suffering from leisure sickness typically had a stressful job and they simply couldn’t switch off, which triggered a whole host of symptoms.
His research found headache and migraine were the most common ailments for weekend sufferers, followed by fatigue and muscle pain. During holidays, they often had cold and flu-like symptoms.

When the pressure is off, people get ill

Professor of organisational psychology at the University of Lancaster, Cary Cooper, says leisure sickness usually happens to people in really pressurised jobs.
"Your immune system is stimulated by the pressure, so when you have deadlines your body knows you can’t get ill. When you take a break your immune system just thinks - no more pressure. I can get sick now."

When you stop working he says: "It’s like a fuse, with your brain telling your body it can switch off, so you get a cold or a headache."

Stress counsellor and lifestyle expert Liz Tucker totally agrees with the phenomenon of leisure sickness.

"It is absolutely a biological process. When you are busy at work, your body just needs to get things done so it overrides everything else."
It’s when you stop that the problems start.

She says when you relax your body goes, "Oh my God [it's] time to repair and restore," so you get rundown and go down with something."


The special case of migraines

One of the most common symptoms of leisure sickness is migraines. Consultant neurologist Giles Elrington is medical director of the National Migraine Centre.

He says if you want to avoid a migraine you have to try to keep to a similar pattern every day.

"I saw a man who always had a headache on a Saturday. Every working day his alarm went off at 6am and he got up for work. On a Saturday he woke at 6am but rolled over, went back to sleep till 8am and woke up with a headache."

Dr Elrington’s advice was to get up at 6am on a Saturday as well and avoid the migraine.

He says the problem with holidays is they can trigger migraines as they involve disregarding your normal rhythm and routine. You may travel to a different time zone, miss meals and become dehydrated by air travel which can all kick-start a migraine.

His advice is to try to stick to your usual pattern of behaviour, even on holidays and at weekends. Get up at the same time, have meals at the same time and if it’s a holiday try to get a daytime flight.

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